Evolution of the Adirondacks High Peaks Wilderness
2022 marks the centennial of three historic events that ignited public interest in exploring the Adirondack wilderness and climbing the “46” high peaks: formation of Adirondack Mountain Club, publication of Robert Marshall’s High Peaks of the Adirondacks, and Grace Hudowalski’s first ascent of Mount Marcy.
To promote public understanding of this unique aspect of Adirondack history, the Grace Hudowalski Charitable Trust has republished the original with an introduction by Suzanne Lance, a precursor to ADK trail guides and a significant part of NY State’s cultural heritage, with an introduction guiding readers through significant events that followed the original publication.
Find the book on Amazon.com.
Mountain exploration and wilderness adventuring was slow to start in the remote and wild Adirondack high peaks. Shielded by a vast and seemingly impenetrable forest, most of New York State’s highest peaks remained unknown long after the highest summits in New England had been summited and explored. The Emmons’ party reached “the high peak of Essex” (Mount Marcy) in 1837, almost 200 years after the first ascent of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington and 3 decades after Maine’s remote “Great Mountain”—Katahdin was reached. While Colvin’s survey of the 1870’s explored, mapped, and determined the heights of many of the major summits, as late as 1922 only 14 of the major peaks had trails to their summits. The lack of trails combined with the ravages of lumbering and wildfires deterred recreation in the Adirondack wilderness well into the 20th Century.
In December 1921 a group of hiking, mountaineering, recreational, and tourism interests gathered at the Log Cabin headquarters of Abercrombie & Finch in New York City to discuss creating an organization to build a trail system in the Adirondacks following the model of the trail systems developed by the Green and Appalachian Mountain Clubs in the White and Green Mountains. After several meetings the Adirondack Mountain Club (commonly known as ADK) incorporated, launching a member-based organization that grew to nearly 600 charter members by the end of 1922 and with the purpose of building trails, educating the public, and promoting recreational activities in the Adirondack wilderness.
ADK’s educational efforts began almost immediately in August 1922 with publication of Bob Marshall’s The High Peaks of the Adirondacks. The Marshall family, father Louis, an acclaimed Constitutional lawyer and philanthropist, and sons Bob and George, were charter members of ADK. Bob and George, as teenagers and young men, passed their summer months at the family summer home on Lower Saranac Lake and between 1918 and 1921 identified and then climbed 42 mountains over 4000’ in elevation accompanied by Herb Clark, a seasoned woodsman, family friend and caretaker of their summer home. After climbing the 42 peaks, Bob wrote a short vignette describing their adventures, routes, and observations and ADK published the tale to inform the public and promote Adirondack recreation.The three climbed an additional 4 summits determined to meet their criteria between 1922 and 1925 and on June 10, 1925, became the first of what became known as 46ers, persons who have climbed each of the 46 summits exceeding 4000 feet, a group which today has grown to almost 14,000 persons.
As ADK formed and Marshall’s publication came off the presses, a young 16-year-old north country girl from Minerva, Grace Leach (Hudowalski), joined a group of seminary students and their friends in a climb to Mount Marcy. A native of the Adirondacks, Grace grew up with the high peaks in view and lived life guided by the admonition her father offered as she set out on her first climb in August 1922: “It doesn’t matter whether you reach the top, what matters is how you make the climb!”
Reaching Marcy’s summit was a life changing experience for Grace and started her climbing and talking about mountains, a passion that defined her life. She went on to climb all 46 of the Adirondack high peaks, the 9th 46er, a term coined by the 46rs of Troy, a group Grace helped form in the 1930’s. She was the first of many women to mark the achievement. Grace turned that experience and her love of her native NY State into a life of public service, promoting New York’s history, folklore, attractions, and natural resources and helping build the State’s tourist economy. She became an advocate for building trails and shelters, opening more wilderness to recreation, preserving the forever wild character of the high peaks, and encouraging reverence for mountain wilderness.
In 1948, Grace helped establish the social and service organization we know today as the Adirondack Forty-Sixers, Inc., whose members share the common experience of climbing the 46 high peaks. Grace served as the organization’s first president and club historian. Drawing upon a tradition established by the 46ers of Troy, Grace encouraged climbers to write about their experiences boldly proclaiming that “any mountain worth climbing is worth writing about!” For more than 50 years, Grace devoted herself to building relationships with and within the growing community of mountain enthusiasts, kept records for each aspiring 46er and a list of those who had achieved that goal. She received and personally answered thousands of personal letter reports offering encouragement, guidance, advice, support, and friendship, a tradition that distinguished the 46ers from all other climbing recognition groups in existence today and forming a unique element of the cultural heritage of the Adirondack region.
In 2014 Grace’s contributions to the State and her beloved Adirondacks were permanently memorialized when the US Board of Geographic Names granted the long-standing petition to rename the summit originally called East Dix as “Grace Peak”. Grace is the only native of the Adirondacks, and the second woman, to be recognized in this manner.